Thursday, September 02, 2010

Clash of the Generations, or First Exit to Brooklyn

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I was thinking a lot about generation gaps yesterday, and the reason for this has something to do with that second major development in my life that I alluded to in this recent post.

The development (which I announced on Twitter and Facebook during my vacation, but which of course I will repeat here)? In about a week and a half—and after I sign the lease and pay first month's rent—I am officially moving to Brooklyn!

Yes, folks: After all the complaining I've been doing in person and on Twitter and Facebook about my mother, about my increasingly agonizing commute and about just generally feeling too spoiled and sheltered at home, I finally got off my lazy/hesitant ass and did something to, as Michael Jackson famously sang in "Man in the Mirror," "make a change."

Most of the people I interact with either in person or online support my desire to fly my parents' coop and try to make it on my own. And when I told some of my friends and acquaintances about how much I'll be paying a month to live in this four-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights—$700 a month, plus approximately $50 extra for utilities—just about all of them agreed that that was a pretty reasonable monthly sum for living in New York.

The only dissenter (or maybe not the only one, as you'll see below)? My mother, of course.

But I come here not to trash my mother—I've already done that too often this year, and I don't know if I can take any more guilt over it—but to try to understand where she's coming from. And the more I think about her reasons for believing this to be a bad move on my part, the more I'm convinced that this is probably yet another instance of a clash of generations at work.


In the mornings, whenever I'm waiting at a nearby bus stop for a NJ Transit bus to take me to New Brunswick, every so often I will be waiting next to a fairly feisty elderly woman, who looks to be in her 60s, if not older. We usually greet each other, and sometimes we even briefly discuss things pertaining to our lives as we wait for the bus to arrive. 

We saw each other again yesterday, and after I mentioned to her that I was moving to Brooklyn in about a week and a half, and that my mother was less than pleased about the decision, she told me right off the bat that she thought my mother was right in this matter. Even bringing up the $700/month rent figure didn't sway her. "That's a lot of money," she said. "At your young age, you should be saving money, not spending it away on rent. Why would you want to leave home and spend all that money away like that? Doesn't make sense to me."

This is more or less the stance my mother has taken on the matter. Unlike this elderly lady, though—who went so far as to say, "The biggest mistake young people make today is leaving their parents' home too early"—my mother takes pains to make clear to me that her disapproval is not about her wanting to keep me at home. Instead, for her, it's mostly about money: how I should be saving as much as I can while I'm young; and how she's worried that, based on how much money I bring home every two weeks from my job, I will end up like one of those people living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling.

Believe me, I grasp the parental concern underlying these reasons, and I would be lying if I didn't share some of them, to a certain extent. And I had always assumed that such concerns could be chalked up more to cultural differences than anything else: Asian people are often known (or is it stereotyped?) for being extremely frugal with their spending, as well as for being submissive to the supposed wisdom of their elders.

But if even this elderly American woman is agreeing with my mother on how youngsters should be approaching money and living...then maybe what we have here isn't just a clash of cultures after all. Maybe this difference of opinion can be explained in part by gaps in time, not just gaps in cultural understanding.


Coincidentally, the front page of yesterday's Personal Journal section in The Wall Street Journal featured a "Moving On" column by Jeffrey Zaslow discussing generational differences when it comes to how younger folk these days perceive and process advice offered by their elders. This one spoke to me with an especially powerful personal resonance.

As Zaslow writes:

Older people have always offered advice to younger people, with words of wisdom culled from their memories of youth. And, of course, in every era, young people have found advice from elders to be outdated and ineffectual. These days, however, given how fast the world is changing, there's been a clear widening of the advice gap.

It's rooted in a devaluation of accumulated wisdom, a leveling of the relationships between old and young. On many fronts, people from Generation Y—now ages 16 to 32—assume their peers know best. They doubt those of us who are older can truly understand their needs and concerns.

With my mother (less so my father, by the way, who, despite being born and raised in my mother's generation, seems to have a mindset closer to that of mine in matters of how someone my age ought to live), I sincerely wish I could feel comfortable enough to ask for her advice on matters of life and living. More often than not, though, I end up feeling frustrated by seemingly irreconcilable differences in worldviews. Like most other people I know, I consider living on my own and facing whatever difficulties one might have to face in doing so a natural rite of passage in adulthood; my mother, however, seems to be of the mindset that a parent's job is to provide enough for her children so that they don't have to face the same difficulties she might have had to face growing up. Thus I feel like I can't really talk to her about living on my own because all I'll get is disapproval that I'm even thinking about moving out in the first place. And that disapproval stings; she's my mother, after all.

Zaslow's article even features a quote from someone addressing generational differences regarding the idea of renting versus buying:

Dustin Borg, 28, taught English in Japan for two years and saw a culture in which older people are revered, and their advice remains unquestioned. He admired the respect young people showed their elders there, but wondered about the complacency among Japanese youth.

Now an actuarial analyst in Atlanta, Mr. Borg says he often challenges advice he receives from older people. For instance, they've counseled him to buy a house because prices are low. "Older people think renting is throwing away money," he says. "But I think owning a home is throwing away financial freedom. I couldn't pick up and move to a new city. I couldn't go back to Japan to see my old friends. I'd be tied to the house."

Having been pressured by my mother to co-own a house in Perth Amboy, N.J., with her—and going through with it begrudgingly, with the understanding that I would not actually live there—I sympathize with Borg and applaud him for sticking to his convictions. But, of course, his parents's advice isn't wrong or misguided. It just comes from a different set of values, one that perhaps treasures the permanence of a house over the transience of renting.


One of the things my mother seems to value highly is the idea of a family as a kind of warm respite from the outside world, a unit in which one can come home every night, have dinner around a table and talk about things that occurred during each member's respective days. This kind of tightly knit familial closeness is important to her, to the point that she will not only ask us if we will be home for dinner, but will give off a faint but unmistakable sense of disappointment if one of us tells her that he will not be coming home to eat with the rest of the family.

Of course, I myself don't really feel that same sense of disappointment whenever that happens (which, on most weekends, is quite often). This right here could be one classic manifestation of a generation gap: Whereas an older generation might have prized family above many other things in life, Generation Y feels less tied down to family roots. That, by extension, makes the idea of fleeing the family home in early adulthood to live on one's own seem natural to us but possibly naïve and foolish to our elders, as it seems to be with my mother and that elderly lady.

There is no right or wrong here. As frustrating as generational gaps can be...well, they are an inevitable part of life, a part of history. The only thing one can really do when faced with such major generational differences is to try one's best to understand the points of view involved and decide for oneself how to proceed.

Who knows? Sometimes those elders whose advice you pooh-pooh now will turn out to have been right all along.

Will my mother end up being vindicated in her skepticism over my impending move to Brooklyn? Will I end up struggling like crazy to get by? Will this end up being similar to the mistake I made in living in that overly expensive on-campus apartment-style housing during my third and fourth years at Rutgers—a mistake I'm paying for right now through monthly student-loan payments? All I know right now is, this move feels right for me at this moment in time. If it ends up being a mistake...well, at least it will be my mistake to learn from, whether my mother understands such a mindset or not.

Stay tuned, I guess.


Brittany said...

Hey! Congrats on the move. That's great. I obviously am of the younger generation, so my advice will coincide with yours, but I think it's definitely the best thing for you.

Sure, you can save a lot of money by living at home, but how will you ever learn independence? And surely you can tell your mom you've saved up quite a bit already by working for a few years while living at home. At some point, you've just gotta cut loose and get out on your own. Plus, it will open up a whole new world of possibilities to you as far as making new friends, meeting new people, getting involved in new things, etc.

And $700 is really reasonable. That's what I paid in Queens, so I have no doubt that you can pay that and still get by each month on what's left over -- even in NYC.

I bet you won't regret it. And maybe once your mom sees how much you will grow and learn by being on your own, even she will come around too. Best of luck in the big move! :)

Kenji Fujishima said...

Thanks Brittany! Yeah, my hope is that I can use this experience to finally learn how to get by on my own. It's just too easy to allow myself to get spoiled and complacent at home; I'm just hoping my attempts to try to live on my own will, at the very least, bring me some sense of personal satisfaction when all is said and done.

I hope Hong Kong has been treating you well so far, by the way! Sounds like you're really loving it out there.

Life Coach Traci said...

Great post Kenji! I think this move will be a great thing for you. You reach a certain point in your life and you need to move into adulthood and strike out on your own, and even the struggles are worthwhile. If you need any help with the move let me and Adam know. Also, you need to come by and see our new apartment!

Kenji Fujishima said...

Yes, Traci, I definitely won't be forgettin' you and Adam while residing in Brooklyn! Sorry I couldn't help you guys out with your move...but I hope to see the fruits of all that hard labor soon :-) .